Pulling Your Sword Out of the Devil’s Back
Busted Flat Records
Less is More
Campfires on the Moon
By Donald Teplyske
Canadian singer-songwriters of the male, troubadour variety are as distinct as Guy Clark is from Greg Brown and Hayes Carll is from Joseph Lemay. Each one is different, but there are also tendrils binding them to a common foundation.
Reaching back four and more decades, there was Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, and Willie Dunn (among others), all of whom had long, vibrant, and diverse careers; all but Dunn, who died in 2013, are still active. Much later, the likes of Fred Eaglesmith, Leeroy Stagger, James Keelaghan, and Corb Lund found some favour stateside, while other exceptional writers and performers—among them John Wort Hannam, Al Tuck, Steve Coffey, Mike Plume, and Craig Moreau—have received less obvious international notice.
We grow them like dandelions up here. Unfortunately, we also sometimes give them just as much attention.
In recent months, three Canadian troubadours have released albums of great intensity, each as individual as one could hope, bound by common and elemental darkness comprised of isolation, pain, and exploration.
For more than a dozen years, Ontario’s Brock Zeman has been playing music wherever they’ll have him. His albums have grown in intensity, his writing has become more comprehensive and dynamic, and he has continually delved into shadows where the greatest insights are discovered. On his eleventh release, this ‘bastard son of Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, with a gravelly Tom Waits voice,’ as one writer described him, has created a demanding, listenable collection of songs.
With long-time collaborators Blair Hogan (guitar, piano, organ, mandolin, noise) and Dylan Roberts (drums and percussion), Zeman has created a roots variety show that bashes into the margins of rock ‘n’ roll (“Dead Man’s Shoes,” “Drop Your Bucket,” and “Sweat”) while flirting with reflections of multi-dimensional folks encountered in memory (“10 Year Flight” and “Walking in the Dark”) and imagination (the eerie, spoken-word title track that kicks off the album.) The lyrical gifts are many: “I saw your old man at the store today, and if he saw me he sure didn’t wave…it got me in the guts to see him limp his way to his truck…” and “I live in a house of ghosts that just won’t let me be; I let them in myself, but now I can’t get them to leave.”
If Ray Wylie Hubbard and Blackie & the Rodeo Kings crank your motor, Brock Zeman’s Pulling Your Sword Out of the Devil’s Back might just become a new favourite.
Gordie Tentrees comes from Whitehorse, Yukon, and while previous albums were entrenched in and inspired by his environment, Less is More is more universally focused. Not that it is any less powerful: Tentrees is writing more poetically, perhaps less tangibly connected to his reality than to the contours of his imagination. It is progression that doesn’t signal abandonment of artistic values.
The title track—with its references (via borrowed lyrics) to Townes Van Zandt and Mary Gauthier—will garner attention, as it should: it is a spectacular hurdy-gurdy of originality and inspiration. But equally impressive are slices of motivation and determination borne of strength (“Broken Hero”), frustration (“Deadbeat Dad”), and concern (“Somebody’s Child”). A reading of Gauthier’s “Camelot Hotel,” with its “cheaters, liars, outlaws, and fallen angels,” provides a framework for that which Tentrees explores through his deeply personal, original songs. References to Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Lanny McDonald, and “pull up your pants, lace up the skates” provide nostalgic Canadiana references, but Less is More transcends lyrical touchstones.
This is life and love, death and fear, punches and loving, lost guitars, batteries connected to radios, waking in the wrong bed, “wall tent whoopee with no underwear,” where “even Bill Monroe can swing.” Should strike a chord with Slaid Cleaves and Chuck Brodsky types.
Back from a self-imposed recording exile, Vancouver’s multi-dimensional Rodney DeCroo has created an album that stands with his finest, and that is no small thing. Poet, playwright, singer, and occasional lost soul, DeCroo has—over the course of his five previous recordings—firmly established himself as Western Canada’s most challenging barstool romantic, a Ron Sexsmith for the down-and-outers.
Five years ago, DeCroo released Queen Mary Trash. That double album wasn’t an easy listen—much like the artist creating the sprawling opus, it was brutal and at times terrifyingly raw. A product of his environment—for good and bad—DeCroo is the raven seeking salvation in the detritus of emotional upheaval, both his own and in those he has impacted.
Campfires on the Moon is intimate and sparse, just three instruments—acoustic guitar, double bass (from Mark Haney), and piano (Ida Nilsen, of Great Aunt Ida)—two voices—harmonies courtesy Nilsen—and one focus—redemption.
“To be young is to be reckless,” he sings in “To Be Young,” one of the album’s genuine and heartfelt compositions; but even within such a graceful reflection of a relationship, DeCroo can’t help himself: with bowed bass adding emotional heft, DeCroo admits that he still hasn’t found the meaning of his existence. Ditto, “Baby, You Ain’t Wild.”
Each song has emotional heft. We’ve all been the “Stupid Boy in an Ugly Town,” and most have us have survived the experience relatively intact. Visiting a familiar haunt in “Ashes After Fire,” DeCroo possibly finds himself in the faces he sees reflected in mugs of amber sustenance. Facing life’s debts, “Out on the Backstretch” reflects on that which one has wrought. Comparisons to Springsteen are not unjust, simply misdirected.
Rodney DeCroo has never allowed himself to hide from who he is. While his songs are not necessarily entirely autobiographical, they are shaped from his experiences and perceptions. Good thing he has an outlet.
Recommended if Jason Isbell and Vic Chesnutt do it for you.